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Dooley Groves rises from the ashes

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Mitch Traphagen Photo
After losing more than 22,000 healthy citrus trees from the threat of citrus canker in 2005, Dooley Groves owner Mike Houghtaling plants the first of 7,000 trees, raising a new grove from the ashes. Houghtaling planted this first tree in memory of his father, Julius “Dooley” Houghtaling.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

SUN CITY — Mike Houghtaling ran his fingers through the sandy soil and said, “It’s like talcum powder.” It wasn’t always that way. Six years ago the soil was thicker, richer and hard at work nourishing more than 22,000 citrus trees at Dooley Groves, just south of Ruskin. That was before the hurricanes of 2004 and before those strong winds blew citrus canker into the area. Only a handful of grapefruit trees at Dooley Groves showed signs of the canker, but neighboring trees had it. Due to rules in place in Florida at the time, all 22,000 healthy trees were bulldozed and burned in 2005. As Mike ran his fingers through the soil there was nothing growing; it was an empty field.

The soil is in Houghtaling’s blood, as it was in his father’s grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s blood. He is a fourth-generation citrus grower. Standing with him are his son David and six-year-old grandson Connor, the fifth and sixth generation. From the bare soil Houghtaling nursed 200 acres of citrus trees producing premium gift fruit, not the typical Florida oranges that end up in juice containers. The varieties he grew were among the most rare, and difficult to cultivate. From the fruit of his labor, came retail stores and a packinghouse with a direct marketing business. Throughout all of it, his father, Dooley, was with him.

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Mitch Traphagen Photo
Orange stakes marked the spot where the new trees were planted. Above, a Dooley Groves employee works the soil in preparation for the new trees that were planted on October 25.
The past years have been difficult for Houghtaling. He watched his beloved grove, healthy and productive trees, go up in smoke because of the mere threat of citrus canker in 2005. Almost exactly one year ago, he lost his father and business partner in a tragic car accident. Julius “Dooley” Houghtaling began his life as a citrus farmer, became a nuclear physicist, and then returned to the grove to help his son Mike build the business.

For the past five years, 200 acres of land has been laid to waste and pushed aside. Houghtaling and his family struggled to find the resources necessary to bring the grove back to life, at one point planting alternate crops just to survive. But it is citrus fruit that is the family’s legacy; it is Mike’s true love. He has devoted 35 years of his life to it; his family has devoted generations.

Amidst the bickering and negativity of the election season, with candidates pointing fingers and blaming each other for a bad economy and for America’s decline in production, something quite amazing happened in old Sun City: Dooley Groves rose from the ashes. Mike, his family, and employees began the process of putting 25 acres back to work by planting the first of 7,000 trees that will bear Honeybell tangelos, among the rarest and most difficult-to-produce varieties of citrus in Florida.

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Photo courtesy of Dooley Groves
Mike Houghtaling learned to grow citrus from his father and grandfather.  Today, the newest three generations take part in the replanting of the grove.  Mike is joined by his son David and grandson Connor.
It was no small event. Quietly, among the shouting of candidates and their supporters, Houghtaling and his family began to produce something. While many people feel that America doesn’t produce anything anymore, agriculture remains one of Florida’s leading industries — and through agriculture, America leads the world. Houghtaling’s efforts will require a level of patience that is more rare than the Honeybells that will someday come forth from his land. He is hoping to push the newly-planted trees to begin producing a crop within three years. It will be three years of sweat, hard work, and love before he will see a return on his investment.

While the candidates bemoaned, this one family has made a difference. When the land begins producing, Houghtaling will contribute to the community through higher property taxes. The hardware stores and other local businesses will see an uptick in business as the grove rises up again. In making the investment to bring back the grove, Houghtaling is doing his part to strengthen and straighten the very backbone of Florida. They are one family, in South Hillsborough, in Florida, in America, making a positive difference. What’s more, Houghtaling has restored his family’s long legacy — not bad for a single day in October.

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Photo courtesy of Dooley Groves
Dooley Groves from the air before the trees were bulldozed and burned in 2005.
Just off Stephens Road in Sun City, thousands of orange stakes marked where trees would soon rise from the soil in 25 acres of land. Mike planted the first tree himself, with his own hands, in memory of his father. Later, his son David and grandson Connor joined him in planting more trees. Three generations working the land, restoring life to what had been reduced to ashes.

In the 1928, writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings purchased a 72-acre orange grove in Cross Creek, Florida. The grove so impacted that the author of The Yearling wrote a book about her life there. She ended the book, entitled Cross Creek, saying:

It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not master. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.

Mike Houghtaling, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, understands all of that. Once again, Dooley Groves belongs to the sun and the seasons and to time. As tenants of the land go, Houghtaling is a very good one.

Dooley Groves is located at 1651 Stephens Road in old Sun City. For more information call 813-645-3256 or 800-522-6411 or visit them online at www.dooleygroves.com. Hand-packed gift boxes of premium fruit are now available for the holidays.

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